A sound first step in Yangon but a mountain still to scale: The Nation

A monk riding on a trishaw commutes past a commercial billboard with portraits of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw in Yangon, on April 18, 2016.
A monk riding on a trishaw commutes past a commercial billboard with portraits of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw in Yangon, on April 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Apr 19, The Nation says Myanmar warrants praise for freeing political prisoners, but dozens of the country's laws need revamping and its Muslims need justice

Myanmar's new National League for Democracy (NLD) government has started out firmly on the road to social reform by releasing hundreds of political prisoners to mark the traditional New Year. And it pledges to free more by the end of this month.

The government of President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi knows that much more is needed, of course. Myanmar has a slew of laws on its books that abrogate fundamental rights recognised in more progressive countries around the world.

These have to be weeded out.

The Office of the President announced on Sunday that Mr Htin Kyaw had pardoned 83 political prisoners during Thingyan, Myanmar's version of Songkran.

The reason given: "to make people happy".

We hope Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is paying attention.

Happiness, which Thailand's military junta is so keen to "return to the people", derives not so much from dissipated concern about political mayhem as it does from the freedom to express ourselves as we please.

Citizens should be able to speak out without fear of becoming political prisoners.

Myanmar's former military rulers detained thousands of people for political offences over the decades, including many members of the NLD who threatened to disrupt the status quo.

Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who had a global audience as the star of the opposition, spent 15 years silenced under house arrest beginning in 1988.

Swept to victory in a landslide last November, the new administration was sworn in at the beginning of this month and, as its first act, freed the political prisoners.

A week before, Ms Suu Kyi announced that political prisoners and activists facing charges for political activities would be released.

The next day nearly 200 activists, including 69 students facing drawn-out trails, were granted amnesty.

Among those pardoned on Sunday were five journalists who in 2014 had been jailed for 10 years for reporting that the military was producing chemical weapons.

The military and the government at the time, which it fully controlled, dismissed the report as a fabrication.

Such harsh treatment for criticism of the army was typical of the regime of previous president Thein Sein, and yet in stark contrast to the spirit of reform that international pressure had forced the military junta to embrace. Sweeping changes were taking place in Myanmar politics and economic policy, but scores of political prisoners languished in prison.

As the country's first civilian government in five decades, Mr Htin Kyaw's administration can capitalise on the immense grassroots popularity of Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Its absolute majority in parliament places the new regime in a position to implement reforms far more wide-ranging than anything Thein Sein would have contemplated during his five years in power.

A crucial area in need of reform is the justice system, so steeped in corruption and so given to unfair verdicts that it will be difficult to change.

Judges rest their cases, quite literally, on laws that override the basic human rights so essential to democracy.

Rights groups overseas claim there are more than 100 such laws on the books in Myanmar that must be removed, laws typically cited to prosecute activists and members of ethnic minorities.

Among the multitudes of people behind bars who shouldn't be there are Muslim activists.

The organisation Human Rights Watch notes a court in Mandalay recently sentencing two Muslims, Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt, to two years of hard labour on top of the two-year prison terms assigned them earlier this year.

Their alleged crime was visiting a unit of the Kachin Independence Army in 2012.

And herein lies another problem, to the resolution of which the NLD government must bring its full populist might.

Myanmar's Muslims, most notably the Rohingya, have never received fair treatment from the authorities.

On this matter, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD have remained ominously quiet, as if fearful of disenfranchising the non-Muslim majority.

With the power they now have in their hands, it's time to let democracy take hold, and democracy includes everyone.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.